The series continues and with two teams left in the West, we’ve finally arrived at the true contenders in this season’s West division race. Matt Viator’s Louisiana-Monroe squad is poised to do some damage this season after a better-than-the-record-suggests 4-8 season last year.
One of the Sun Belt’s most electric quarterbacks went from battling for the starting spot early in 2017 to being a breakout star by season’s end. Caleb Evans fought off Garrett Smith and threw for over 2,800 yards and added 579 yards on the ground.
Evans was responsible for 30 Warhawk touchdowns and he led the Sun Belt in rushing touchdowns with 13. When the ball was in his hands, the rising junior gained 7.17 yards per play. That’s a number that tops all returning quarterbacks in the conference.
His top targets, Marcus Green and RJ Turner, are back after combining for over 1,500 receiving yards last year. Green’s return is key, as the versatile playmaker tallied up just over 2,000 all-purpose yards in 2017. He had nine total touchdowns, five coming as a receiver and four as a kick returner.
At running back, Derrick Gore returns after turning in a solid, albiet unspectacular, 2017 campaign. Ben Luckett is a reliable third option behind Gore and Evans. Luckett actually leads the team in career rushing yards with 1,290.
Having lineman Eastwood Thomas (All-Name Team) and Devin Jackson certainly doesn’t hurt the Warhawk cause either.
The other side of the ball is where the problems surface and let me tell you, these problems run deep. More accurately, opposing teams were running deep on ULM.
The Warhawks gave up a conference-worst 93 20+ yard plays last year. The next closest, Lafayette, gave up 71. ULM also allowed more 60+ yard plays than any other Sun Belt team with nine.
That’s fairly unideal.
Monroe gave up a whopping 532 yards per game. East Carolina was the only team in the country who had worse numbers than that.
When a defensive back leads your team in tackles, such as Roland Jenkins did for ULM, it’s usually a sign of some serious issues.
However, things may be different in Monroe this year. Mike Collins is in his third year of his second stint as defensive coordinator and has a much more experienced group to work with than the previous two years.
The Linebackers, a specialty area for Collins, will have three returning upperclassmen who combined for 168 tackles last year. One of whom, David Griffith, has 26 tackles for loss and seven sacks in his career.
The defensive line will also be much improved as well. Freshmen Kerry Starks and Mason Hussman showed promise last season in getting into the backfield. Several other junior and senior lineman fill out what will be a deep line in 2018.
The secondary will be the primary question mark for Collins this season. Jenkins is gone as well as Juwan Offray, who had nine pass breakups a season ago.
Corner JJ Dallas will be relied on heavily on the outside while the rest of the defensive back group will be thrust into major roles for the first time.
All in all, the Warhawks could be in store for a big improvement over the 196 rushing yards allowed per conference game last season. Teams will still be able to pass the ball effectively but slowing down the ground attack will go a long way.
This isn’t an overly tough schedule, even with two SEC opponents and both Arkansas State and Troy on the docket. It’s more than plausible that the Warhawks win their final six games of the year and clinch a Sun Belt West title. 9-3, 7-1
The Sun Belt has several teams that have sneaky trip-up potential. If ULM’s defense doesn’t improve, it’ll be in for another season of shootouts. 4-8, 3-5